Stephen’s Girls is long, but I make no apologies for that. Written in four parts, it tells the tale of a young woman who gets hooked on painkillers and then one day finds herself without her doctor, who is suddenly just gone. Opioid addiction is serious business, and nothing to fool around with – as this young woman soon found out.
Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section at the end of the poem.
The flyer taped to the ground floor window caught my eye as I hurried home from work one evening.
Heal your Back, it said, and beneath that,
Regain your Life! No insurance, cash only, walk-ins welcome.
Should I go in? I thought, but my hand was already pushing open the door.
The receptionist, scrubs, black nail polish, piercings, smiles at me. I have back pain, I say, but she can’t hear me, nodding to the music on her earbuds. She waves me to the chairs, where I wait.
Come in, come in, the doctor says, his brown eyes so reassuring. He smiles, showing all of his even white teeth, letting me know he has nothing to hide.
My back is a minefield, I begin, some days it will not bend at all. He nods, glancing towards the front door, where another patient has just arrived.
Here, try these little round white pills. He hands me a small white envelope. Let me know how you do. A pat on the shoulder, and I am back outside.
How do I do? Dizzy, headache, back pain better. Next time I see him, I say, These are ok, but isn’t there anything stronger?
Then try these, he says, handing me a sample pack of sparkly red and blue capsules. Let me know how you do.
How do I do? Sleepy, can’t eat, back pain not that much different.
Next time I see him, I say, Help me, I still have pain.
Yes, I see. Come with me. We go through a beautiful marble archway into a separate waiting room, light and spacious, filled with serene patients who all smile the same vacuous smile as we walk past.
Try these, he says, handing me an envelope filled with tiny shiny pink and red capsules. These are so good, he croons, very strong, very effective. Let me know how you do.
I am dizzy and confused, can’t eat, with a tendency to nod off if there’s nothing going on, like that time at the really long red light when I was supposed to be driving –
But at last, the pain is gone. And there is nothing on earth so seductive as the true promise of pain relief.
And so it goes. The months go by. My visits to see him are now routine, I am an Established Patient.
We chat. I show him pictures on my phone, he tells me about his son the lawyer. Sometimes he seems distracted, but I don’t mind. As long as I get my precious, everything is fine.
With more time to look around, I notice that the beautiful marble entrance isn’t marble at all, but wood painted to look like marble, chipped and peeling on the inside.
I read that these pills are habit forming. Worse, the government wants to make it harder for me to get them. I just want to be comfortable in my body, like before it was broken, like when I was young and thought about it never. Because why would I?
And then one day I go to the clinic, and it is gone. Workmen are putting up a sign which says “CVS”, and inside, the space is filled with painters and men with hammers, and my doctor is gone. Bits of shredded paper are scattered on the ground, moving gently across the parking lot in the small breeze, bit of patients’ files.
“Where’s the clinic?” I ask one of the workmen. He eyes me with suspicion. It’s gone, he says shortly, and turns away.
I go home, and on the way, I Google how to withdraw from opioid drugs.
Sweating, nervousness, agitation, anxiety, vomiting, diarrhea, hallucina
No, this cannot be. It’s just the government trying to scare people so they don’t use these drugs. I will be fine.
Late afternoon, nervous, yes, agitated, well yes, maybe I am sorta scared now. I walk around my tiny apartment, picking up objects and putting them back down again. My clothes feel strangely uncomfortable, like they are made out of Brillo.
I want to shout, I want to throw something through the window to see the glass splinter and crash, I want to not be me right now, not be me.
Evening passes slowly, I am climbing out of my skin, jumpy and edgy. Go to bed, I think, and crawl beneath the covers still dressed.
I wake sometime during the early hours to find a large black creature gazing down at me from the corner across the room, where the walls meet the ceiling.
Transfixed, I watch his naked pink tail, hanging half-way down to the floor, metronome gently back and forth. His black wings, banshee translucent, move slowly, gently keeping time with the tail, just holding him aloft up there in the corner, in a sort of holding pattern.
His eyes, intelligent eyes, vaguely simian, are watching me dispassionately, waiting, waiting. I know without knowing that he wants me to look into his eyes. No. I will not. I will resist as long as I can.
But the slow movement of his tail
back and forth,
back and forth,
has compromised me,
positively hypnotized me –
A cobra stalking a frightened bird.
Back and forth, back and forth,
the naked pink and pointy tail
and suddenly it stops, the tip pointing right at me.
Terrified, I look up into his eyes, so nearly human, so impassive.
Like a vulture that has spotted a tasty gerbil and calculated just the right trajectory to crunch the soft furry body with its rajor-sharp beak, he spreads his wings and glides soundlessly down, down towards me, lying on my bed, gazing up at him petrified, gerbilized, unable to decide which way to move and so I do not move at all, frozen.
His wings spread wider and wider, a canopy of black. Run! I must, and scramble out from under the blankets, duck beneath him and bolt for the dresser, where my hairbrush lies in front of the mirror. If I can just grab the hairbrush, maybe I can
I see him in the mirror, landing onto my shoulders, claws hooking on tight, his weight bearing down on my back. His mouth is open, teeth bared, and he lets loose a braying shriek of triumph, like a chimpanzee in a rage.
Let go, let go of me! Get off me!! I scream, I scream and scream.
And then he is gone.
Well, that was weird.
I search the room, look all around the bed, even underneath it, but no visitor. Eventually, I get back into bed, eyes wide open, but nothing seems different, except for the strange sensation of something on my shoulders and back.
In time I drift off to sleep once again, gentle on the wings of the small night breeze.
Eyes wide open, I awake. What the hell? My legs are trembling. I give them a friendly rub and remind them that I will sleep now. All is well.
Tremble, tremble, kick!
My legs lift themselves right off the bed, heels an inch above the mattress where they should be nestling so comfortably. Bang! My legs slam back down onto the mattress, my very own mattress where I sleep so happily every night.
What’s this? I ask myself, and now I am filled with dread, worried about legs that will not behave and worried about the strange visitor who had earlier graced my bedroom ceiling.
Tremble. Tremble, tremble.
A thousand angry insects are running wild beneath my skin, scrambling desperately to find a way out.
Tremble, tremble, kick!
My legs, my feet, these feet that carry me wherever I tell them to go, they now seem to have a mind of their own, hitting the bed for all that they are like a boy beating the dust out of a carpet.
And on my back, hanging down the center over my spine, I can just barely feel a tiny pulse going swish, swish, back and forth, back and forth.
The night goes on forever.
Help, help me!! Jesus, where are you when I need you? Jesus isn’t home right now.
How I crave gentle sleep, its warm embrace eludes me like a lover scorned, just out of reach, dancing beyond the ends of my fingertips.
Tremble, tremble, tremble, kick! Will this night never end? But my heart beats, my lungs breathe, and eventually, impartial dawn comes as it always does. My head aches with the effort of not crying.
Morning. Hands shaking, I reach for my phone and google “opioid withdrawl symptoms”. Am I done, is it over? “The first week is the worst,” I read, and my heart fails me. I cannot do this, I cannot do this.
Should I go to a hospital? No, too expensive. Find a new clinic? No, the waiting period is too long.
Who do I know who might have a little something for me? Friends? No. Relatives? No. Maybe their kids, no certainly not.
Work? Careful there. I’ve worked hard for this job, student loans, interview, this is my life.
But wait … what about Stephen, Stephen the mail-room guy, the one with the diamond earring in one ear and the big muscles, the handsome, sort of stupid fellow who pushes the mail cart past my office every day?
There are rumors, secretaries giggling about what a man he is, always something for the ladies … 1-800-stephen. Could that be for real? How I hope that it’s for real.
I wait, wait until it’s lunch time on this Saturday, wait for a socially correct time to call. Calm, I caution myself, sound calm. You must be calm.
I dial 1-800-stephen, heart pounding.
Hi, Stephen, it’s Ms. Pardee, from work.
Hi. Wary, cautiously respectful, polite.
Stephen, I was wondering if we could meet, maybe for coffee?
Huh? Oh. Wow. Sure, we could do that sometime, maybe next week?
No, Stephen, I thought maybe sooner than that. Maybe … are you busy today? Maybe like, now, for lunch?
He does not ask me why, the question hangs in the air.
Oh. Ok, yeah, Ms. Pardee, we could do that. His voice wondering, calculating.
We meet, my hands carefully clenched together beneath the table to stop the trembling, but he takes one look at me and he knows. Professional that he is, he just knows. How did I ever think this man was stupid?
Like magic, ten beautiful little white round pills grace the table in front of me. But I do not have that much cash.
I will pay you for seven of them, I offer, and for the rest of them on Monday at work.
OK, he says, and in a flash three pills disappear. No money, no pills. Lesson learned.
“Or,” he says and then pauses, eyeing me in a way that reminds me of my visitor, and I shiver. He seems about to make a suggestion, but then changes his mind. Once a fish is hooked, you don’t want to pull too hard on the line.
Thank you, Stephen, I say as he stands and flips the hood of his sweatshirt back up over his head.
He smiles and says, See you on Monday, Jen.
Jen. So now I’m Jen. Just another one of his customers.